Adult Entry: Free
Nearest Tube: Maritime Greenwich
The Queen’s House in Greenwich may have a modest appearance, but it has one of the most interesting creation stories. It was supposedly commissioned by James I as an apology to his wife, the offence being his swearing in front of her after she had accidentally killed one of his dogs during a hunt. I, too, now have additional questions.
While to us, it appears as a pleasantly well-executed classical mansion, the Queen’s House was actually quite controversial in its time. It was completed in 1636, during the reign of red brick Tudor styles, and so caused quite a stir when it burst on to the scene- a bright, elegant, and wholly Classical structure. A queen now duly installed, the house remained in the hands of the monarchy until 1805 when George III granted the house to a charity caring for the orphans of seamen (perhaps the death-toll of America’s succession weighed on his mind?)
Jumping to the present day, the house now stands as part of Maritime Greenwich, the UNESCO World Heritage site which includes an ensemble of buildings and park areas. There are so many parts of Greenwich that I could review. The Painted Hall in the Royal Naval College is a pinnacle of British art, and comparable to the Sistine Chapel; I’ve seen both, so trust me. If science is more your thing, the Royal Observatory and Prime Meridian are, of course, iconic parts of modern history. The list continues for this truly wealthy historical site, and I strongly recommend that you visit, but do plan ahead to make sure you see everything you’re after. I’m choosing to focus on the Queen’s House today because it does some things very well, and does other things less well, and this makes a good review.
The main entrance to the house is through the servants halls in the basement. I was initially annoyed not to enter via the grand terrace doors, but this route conveniently hides the reception desk and toilets away from the main space. Fitting really. Ascending to the main floor of the house, the first room you enter is the great hall. It is a beautiful space which demonstrates that less is more. The room is of modest proportions and the white-walled spaces work well to show off the architectural features. The suspended balcony is the best of these, elegant and impressive. One minor criticism of the space is that it is obviously used as an events space. The problem is not with the ‘events space’ part of that sentence, but the ‘obviously’ part. Keeping it clear saves a lot of time I’m sure, but does seem like a waste. The majority of the rooms in the Queen’s House now serve as galleries for an assortment of artworks showing nautical scenes, or with some other connection to Greenwich. On the whole they are hung well. The spacing is even and the room colours are sympathetic. I had a few issues with glare on glazed works, making them hard to see, but perhaps I’m being too British- complaining when it’s miserable, complaining when it’s sunny…
The signage in the house is very well done, so much so that i’m dedicating this paragraph to it. Many historic properties rely on free-standing signs to comply with the strict non-invasive demands of listed status. While this is accepted in smaller doses, in a large property, or one with extended narratives, the number of signs can clutter rooms and detract from the spaces. The Queen’s House has adopted an innovative approach which is non-invasive to the structure but also, more importantly, to the visitor. Namely, self-adhesive vinyl lettering, or to use the layman term, stickers. Placed above doorways, these stickers use a sympathetic font style and colour to give basic details about the room you are currently standing in and what is beyond that particular doorway. They were never intrusive, and because of their consistent location in rooms, they made my navigation through the house intuitive and easy.
The Queen’s House is not the most exciting building in Greenwich, nor is it the grandest, nor the most historically rich. Yet this is exactly the reason to go and see it; it is a masterclass in creating a cultural heritage visitor attraction that goes far beyond it’s innate value. In a city as historically bloated as London, finding ways to draw attention from the Rosetta Stone And Friends is key to the growth and revitalisation of our historical narratives.